Leyland Eight Follow-up

When writing last month about going to Donington to drive the sole-surviving Leyland Eight I gave a brief resume of the controversial luxury-car of the 1920s, which was designed by J. G. Parry Thomas with the express intention of surpassing the excellence of the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Previous to this (Motor Sport, 1974) I wrote about the place the car from Lancashire occupied in relation to such contemporaries as the Rolls-Royce, the Hispano-Suiza, the Lanchester, the Napier, and the Isotta-Fraschini. Neither article could give an entirely unspeculative view of what the early production Leylands were like, because the surviving example is closer to the very successful Leyland-Thomas racing cars than to the catalogue versions and my technical discourse had, perforce, to be mere surmise and deduction based on such paper-data as was available.

The Leyland Eight of the early 1920s, of which so few were built before the project was quickly abandoned, has long been an enigma, because so very little is known about how it behaved in private usage. But I remembered that the Sears family had been quoted as owning them. So, in a forlorn hope of obtaining some information about this elusive car, I wrote to Mr. Stanley Sears, who is well known as the owner and painstaking restorer of Rolls-Royce and other historic cars. When the reply he sent me from Portugal was received it turned out to be the most interesting letter I have ever had, about this or any other make of car. Because as both Mr. Sears and his mother ran Leyland Eights in the vintage years he has been able to provide fresh and revealing information, based on first-hand experience. I am deeply indebted to him, for never before have the inside facts about the technically-advanced and complicated Parry Thomas design been revealed. . . .

As Mr. Sears’ recollections tumble the Leyland Eight, at all events in its earlier catalogue form, from the lofty pedestal on which my former article placed it, it might be thought that I would not be very happy to be confronted by these revelations. On the contrary, I am delighted to learn the truth at last, and I offer my sincere thanks to Mr. Sears for providing it. By a remarkable coincidence, when I was at the Brooklands Re-Union a few days after receiving his letter, I met Mr. Fritton of Southampton, who confronted me with some old photographs as a sort of inpromptu test of my motoring knowledge. These included two pictures of what must surely be the actual Leyland Eight owned by Stanley Sears, with the Grose saloon body he had made to replace its original open 3-seater body. I am glad to reproduce these, along with Mr. Sears’ extremely informative letter:

Mr. Sears writes

“I was most interested to know that you are writing about the Parry Thomas Leyland Eights. I believe that only about 12 of them were made – which absorbed, in development costs, all the profit made by the commercial vehicles during the 1914/18 War! I think that the first one was produced in 1924 or 25. Michael Collins was shot and killed in one in Ireland (Dublin?) during the Sinn Fein troubles. J. E. P. Howey, who founded the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, and his brother each had one.

In 1919 my Mother still had my late Father’s 1910 24 h.p. 4 cyl. Renault with local Arthur Mulliner of Northampton landaulette coachwork, which had been a most reliable car. It was time to make a change to a more modern type and although a Rolls-Royce was priority, it was felt by many at that time that the marque smacked of the nouveau riche; so I persuaded my Mother to buy one of the new 1920 Lanchester 40s which with its o.h.c. engine and epicyclic gearbox was a much more modern design than the obsolescent Silver Ghost. This started for me a great friendship with George Lanchester which lasted until his death not so long ago. The Lanchester was a very good and reliable car, but with the soft rear cantilever springs which she specified it rolled like a boat on corners and very much curtailed the spirited driving in which I indulged in those days; having had a 10/30 Alvis s.v. followed by a 12/40 Alvis o.h.v., and then a 1926 Lancia Lambda while I was at Cambridge.

When I went to the Olympia Motor Show in 1921 the Leyland Eight had not long been announced and two examples were exhibited one a show-finished chassis which was most impressive, and a magnificent example of modern design and engineering by Parry Thomas. The specification is already well known to you. The other was a large 4-door limousine in maroon which was dubbed by The Motor “The Lion of Olympia” and a photo of it was produced in the Show Number. This so fired my enthusiasm that I determined that we must have one. I tried to persuade my Mother to buy it, but she did not then want to part with the Lanchester 40 h.p. I think that about a year later Leyland’s found that the enormous cost of production had already absorbed all their surplus profits and that the car was not likely to sell in any quantity, and called a halt to manufacture. Parry Thomas was then developing his modified Leyland Eight for Brooklands use, and winning races at very high speeds. J. E. P. Howey was also racing his car there but you know much more about that than I do. It was about this time that Leylands wanted to get rid of the cars and Parry Thomas bought the remaining chassis and spares and got into partnership with Thomson to market them. (Taylor was of course his mechanic.) There was one completed car with a spartan open cloverleaf 3-seater body, and no weather protection, finished in works grey. I saw this car when I was at Brookhinds, and fell for it. Parry Thomas took me round the track on it and we did over the magic 100 m.p.h. on the Railway Straight. I managed to negotiate a very favourable price for it from Thomson and, with the aid of a loan from my Mother bought it, in 1927. The Olympia Show saloon was still unsold, and I managed to persuade her to buy this car.

Magnificent as the cars appeared particularly with their distinctive radiator and rectangular filler-cap unfortunately they lacked sufficient pre-production development and were full of teething troubles. The original chassis did not have front wheel brakes, and it was obvious that such a fast and heavy car could not be driven safely at high speeds without them. There was then no possibility of producing them at the works, so Parry Thomas fitted new front axles with brakes from, I believe, Hispano Suiza. There could be no gearbox driven servo as on those cars, so the small vacuum servo originally fitted to assist the rear brakes was called upon to operate all four, with the result that the pedal pressure was so high that one literally had to push the back of the seat out to stop quickly. Fairly light pressure sufficed for slowing down, but one soon “ran through” the servo and then it was a case of sheer muscle power. This combined with very heavy steering at low speeds made it a tiring car to drive. The steering was high geared about 2 turns from lock to lock and was very precise. The small diameter steering wheel protected almost horizontally from the cast aluminium dashboard, supported by a massive cast aluminium bracket. It was extremely rigid and entirely devoid of any shake even on the roughest roads, which was most unusual at that time. On the engine side there was a bevel gear and vertical shaft incorporated in the mechanism housed in a fire cast aluminium housing. An interesting piece of design was that the starter motor was actuated by placing the gear lever into a special slot in the gate marked “S”. This prevented the engine being started in gear.

The crankshaft was remarkably flimsy for an engine of this size, but it seemed to stand up to Parry Thomas’ tuning and racing. Cantilever valve springs were used and eccentric drive to the overhead camshaft. There was a peculiar form of oil reservoir at the offside rear of the engine, and I remember that the engine produced a lot of sludge in the oil.

I believe that the rear axle incorporated double bevel wheels. Torsion members were fitted to control the quarter elliptic rear springs, the ends of which were housed in a large trunnion-bearing.

There were two Zenith carburetters fitted, one on each side of the engine. Normally the offside one was in use, but the near side one could be cut in by a flush-fitting lever in the centre of the steering wheel which opened a butterfly in the second induction pipe to give increased power and acceleration. (But reduced the petrol consumption to about 9 m.p.g!) The engine was very quiet and smooth, and the performance and suspension and roadholding far superior to any other large car on the road at that time.

I feel ashamed to admit that even at the age of 23 I found the open cloverleaf body with no weather protection (which I believe was only fitted to the chassis for testing purposes) too spartan for my liking in winter, and I designed a special 2-door sports saloon with boat tail, and had it built by Grose of Northampton (to support local industry!). It was finished in imitation mahogany wood grain and was very handsome for those days. Unfortunately however I failed to provide adequate ventilation and one was literally toasted in warm weather!

Now the disadvantages of insufficient preproduction development became apparent. Both cars suffered from clutch slip, and fracture of the torsion control units of the rear suspension due to crystallisation of the type of steel used. Plugs were apt to oil-up unless the oil level was carefully watched and maintained.

My Mother’s car ran a big-end, when I was driving her to Cornwall, on Bodmin Moor at 80 m.p.h. Parry Thomas would not believe it until I sent him by post some of the metal from the sump, when he dispatched a mechanic to fit a new one! In those days there was no adequate service. The works had finished with the cars, and Parry Thomas was too involved and busy with his racing to bother about it.

Neither my Mother nor I could tolerate unreliability or being let down on the road. I was offered a very high price for my car by an enthusiast and sold it. A few days later he was trying it out at Brooklands, when at about 100 m.p.h. on the Railway Straight, the Whittle fan belt broke and sheared off the cast aluminium fan blades, which gouged a large hole in the radiator matrix! The new owner tried to claim damages from me but fortunately I had worded the receipt “car in condition as inspected, tested, and approved.” I lost all trace of the car after that, and fear that it was eventually broken up. I returned to my first love of Alvis this time a 6-cylinder model. My Mother kept her car for some time and then sold it to buy the new straight-8 Lanchester. The Leyland was used as a hire car but the running cost was so great that it was quite uneconomical and it was broken up after removal of the body. What a pity it was that the cars were never fully developed, and made in reasonable quantities. They were really superb, when they were running properly.

It is sad that the one remaining car was running so badly when you tried it, and also, when it was restored by the apprentices, that the lovely and unusual radiator was scrapped.”

I am sure all those interested in vintage-car history will be intrigued by these revelations concerning this famous, but little-known-about, Leyland of the 1920s. (Mr. Sears says that quite probably his dates are not exactly correct, as one’s memory becomes fallible with advancing years; this does not detract one iota from the value of the data he has so generously provided.) I note that his Leyland had the remarkable arrangement of two carburetters, one on each side of the engine, the second one brought into play by a lever on the steering-wheel boss. This links up with a letter from the ex-Austin apprentice Mr. F. T. Henry, in the June 1974 Motor Sport, in which he recalled a short-chassis Leyland Eight with not two but five carburetters, the four on the o/s being brought into action by just such a lever as that on Mr. Sear’s car. Why Parry Thomas adopted such a cumbersome method and how it actually functioned, is a moot point. The first Leyland Eights had a single Zenith carburetter on the n/s, feeding through the cylinder block to inlet ports on the o/s. Later a Smiths carburetter was specified. (Single carburetters were normal at this time.) The mixture was fed through an exhaust-heated annulus. It seems that later, after the one-piece cylinder head had been adopted, two Zeniths were fitted, each feeding four cylinders of the straight-eight engine, unless the person who was describing the Leyland engine at this time just could not believe that a carburetter could be fitted on each side of the power unit. It is perhaps significant that the March 1922 catalogue, while reasonably detailed, makes no reference to carburation. On the racing engines, and on the car I described last month, four updraught Zeniths, functioning normally, each one supplying two cylinders, were used. – W.B.

* * *

V-E-V Odds & Ends. A Cheshire reader who has recently restored a 1928/29 Humber 16/50 With the original 30DHK twin-choke triple-diffuser Zenith carburetter has had help from Zenith’s in making this function properly but he would appreciate further advice from those who know this carburetter and the functioning of its mixture-control intimately. Another reader seeks identification particulars relating to a 1914-16 Daimler engine now installed in a boat. It has two pairs of cylinder blocks, compression taps for each cylinder, and seems to be a converted 25 h.p. unit. Those who enjoy the sight and sound of Scott motorcycles in action are reminded that the Scot OC is holding its annual National Rally at Stanford Hall, near Rugby, from noon on September 4th. The Morris Register Journal, Summer issue, is as interesting as ever, with a long discourse on the Series models front 1935 onwards, the experiences of an impecunious Morris owner, family-album pictures, etc. Texaco have issued a special publication, to mark their 75th Anniversary, which carries pictures of cars used for early American endurance-runs, notably a trans-Continental tour by a 1917 Maxwell, which is illustrated. The article contains a reference to the occasion in 1930 when a Model-A Ford was driven in reverse from New York to Los Angeles and back, the forward gears having been removed to avoid temptation! Whose was the vintage Austin Seven with canvas-topped truck body seen in Knighton not long ago? The Farquhars have acquired the original Riley engine that was in the Appleton Special before the war, exactly as it was installed in that well-known Special.